Psychological Particularities of Children at School Entry. Case Study in Romanian Schools

Abstract

Preparing children for school (“school readiness”) implies an appropriate level of training, stage of development, and amount of physical, social, emotional and cognitive capabilities (Blair, 2002, Lemelin & Boivin, 2007, Booth, 2008). This state is determined by the interdependence between internal and external factors, in the socio-familial and educational-institutional environment. The research aims to capture the perceptions of 84 pre-school teachers on the children’s abilities to meet the required activities. The analysis undertaken offers a profile of the children characteristics as perceived by teachers and suggestions for adapting the curricular offer to the individual features and age of children, in order to ensure a harmonious cognitive, psychomotor and socio-emotional development. The main results show that: • Only 10% of teachers believe that all the children were prepared, at the beginning of the preparatory grade, to face the challenges of the school curriculum, while 50% of teachers believed that not all but most of the children were prepared in this respect. • Teachers appreciated that most of the children have a good level of cognitive and affective – motivational skills but are not able yet to comply with the discipline rules (Sign Test < 0.05); • Overall, teachers appreciate that most children are not prepared in terms of compliance with the classroom rules. Teachers have proposed several solutions: focusing the activity on the socio-emotional development of children, renewing the curriculum by reducing the number of hours and simplifying the content, allocating additional human resources (psychopedagogue, doctor).

Keywords: School readinessmain indicators of psychological development of childrencurriculum appropriateness

Introduction

Since 1990, there have been significant changes, at the international level, in the policy on early

education. Romania resonated with this movement, adopted its principles, ratifying its documents and

generating a series of institutional and legal acts and documents. All these paved the way for the

legislative changes from 2012, namely a new National Education Law. Among the important provisions,

this stipulated the moving of the last year of kindergarten (“preparatory group”) to primary education,

naming it the “zero” or “preparatory” grade and considering it a compulsory step in the transition from

kindergarten to school. This shift has generated, in the education system, among those directly involved

(parents, teachers) and not only, an ample debate about the appropriateness, benefits, efficiency, and costs

of its implementation. Our research was carried out in this dynamic context and aimed to identify how

this phenomenon was reflected in the consciousness of the teachers directly involved, specifically how

they perceive the readiness of children to meet the challenges of school life.

Problem Statement

In the field of early education a special place is occupied by preparing children for school (“school

readiness” ), a process which should foster the acquisition by the child of those physical, social,

emotional and cognitive skills that a child needs to successfully adapt to the school environment

(Lemelin, & Boivin, 2007). School readiness should be appreciated not only as a process but also as a

result that the school institutions, the child’s family expect of the child, often placing an excessive burden

on their shoulders (Rafoth, Buchenauer, Crissman Kolb, & Halko, 2004).

Sociologists and psychologists have unanimously found that the variables that determine the

differences in children’s school readiness are social, economic, psychological, biological resources,

health, the range and quality of experiences held/gained by children together with their parents.

Specifically, the families where the level of poverty is high, dysfunctional in terms of social issues that

have psychological difficulties, few personal and institutional possibilities to deal with them register

higher rates of failure in achieving this type of training (Farkas, & Hibel, 2008).

Research on the parent-child interactions and their impact on preparing children for school showed

that, in general, maternal interactions characterized by positive emotions, reduced criticism, control and

excessive authoritarianism are associated with higher school performance, without any connection to the

family’s socio-economic status and mother’s intelligence level (Estrada, Arsenio, Hess, & Holloway,

1987; Pianta, Nimetz, & Bennett, 1997; Pianta, Smith, & Reeve, 1991 as cited in Connell, & Prinz,

2002). Moreover, it was found that mothers who show an interest in the verbal expression of the child in

terms of correct speech, use of accurate language, helped develop the children’s subsequent oral and

written communication skills (Connell, & Prinz, 2002).

Assessments of the level of school readiness frequently performed by measuring basic cognitive

skills such as recognizing numbers, colours, shapes and spatial orientation showed significant differences

at the expense of children from socio-economic vulnerable environments. This relationship is particularly

strong not only in the cognitive domain of academic readiness (Ramey & Ramey, 2004), but it is also

important for the dimensions of language and social skills development.

The reference literature from Canada identified strong links between the school readiness of

children and their school adaptation and the quality of later school performance. For example, children

who are less prepared upon school entry are more likely to manifest problems in learning and difficulties

in acquiring social skills (Connell & Prinz, 2002), show signs of failure to socially adapt subsequently, all

these generating, in the school career, rejection and victimization from peers (Guay, Boivin, & Hodges,

1999 as cited in Lemelin, & Boivin, 2007).

For the purposes of identifying the impact of early preparation for school on later school

acquisitions, a number of 6 longitudinal studies identified and hierarchized the strongest predictors of

school performance, namely good mathematical training, reading skills and, finally, attention. Instead,

socio-emotional behaviours of internalizing and externalizing problems were generally insignificant

predictors of later academic performance, even among children with relatively high levels of problematic

conduct. This pattern of association was similar for boys and girls regardless of the socio-economic

background (Duncan et al., 2007).

Over the past few years, researchers have analysed in detail the impact of children’s social and

emotional abilities on their early academic acquisitions (Wentzel, & Asher, 1995 as cited in Raver, 2003).

Thus, children who have difficulties in focusing, complying with rules, collaborating with other kids,

controlling negative emotions, anger and stress are less adapted to school (Arnold et al., 1999;

McClelland, Morrison, & Holmes, 2000). The results demonstrated that academic achievements in the

first few years of school seem to be built on a solid basis of children’s socio-emotional skills (Ladd,

Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1997, O'Neil et al., 1997 as cited in Raver, 2003). Thus, the relationships that

children build with their classmates and teachers rely on the ability to regulate emotions in a prosocial

way, these becoming a “source of provisions” helpful in academic activities (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999,

p. 1375). Psychologists found that children who are antisocial in their behaviour are less accepted by

peers and teachers (Kupersmidt, & Coie, 1990; Shores, & Wehby, 1999, as cited in Raver, 2003),

participate less frequently and often deficiently in the classroom activities compared to their counterparts

with a pro-social conduct. However, we should mention the fact that the relationship between the early

academic skills of children and their socio-emotional adaptation can be bidirectional, meaning that those

children who struggle with early learning difficulties could grow increasingly frustrated and aggressive

(Arnold et al., 1999).

Another predictor of school adaptation was long considered to be intelligence. Research has

shown, however, that the indicators of the self-regulating capacity, whether it is defined as the ability to

control emotion in an effort to socially respond adequately or adjust attention and use of the selective

strategy in performing cognitive tasks are independent predictors and, perhaps, equally relevant for

school adaptation. Much of the literature points to the role of self-regulation (Grolnick & Slowiaczek,

1994; Normandeau & Guay, 1998; Wentzel, Weinberger, Ford, & Feldman, 1990, as cited in Blair,

2002), clear relations between school acquisitions and the percentage of time that students spend in

academic activities being demonstrated both at the preschool and elementary levels. The aspects of social

and cognitive self-regulation, such as those involved in establishing friendly relations (Ladd, Birch, &

Buhs, 1999) and in the perceived control over learning play a key role in the development of behavioural

self-regulating capacities of children in the transition to school (Blair, 2002).

Researchers (Fertig, & Kluve, 2005) also studied the role of age in influencing the preparation of

children for school using the data set collected on children who entered school between the late 1960s and

until the late 1970s in Germany. The empirical results suggested a negative qualitative relationship

between the school entry age and educational outcomes, both in terms of education level and the

probability of repeat, estimating that there is no effect of the school entry age upon school performance.

More recent surveys (Fredriksson, & Öckert, 2006) who resumed this issue have not reached more

conclusive evidence, although the procedure for gathering data was slightly different, consisting in

comparing student school results based on the month of birth. These studies have concluded that the

youngest student in a class obtained performances slightly below those of older colleagues, but the

differences were small and transient. The conclusion was that the bio-psychological maturity level, and

not the chronological age, plays a part in the school entry success.

Another study (McClelland et al., 2000) attempted to examine the predictability of labour skills for

academic achievement at school entry and at the end of the second grade and identified the characteristics

of children with low levels of these. The results indicated that these skills have continued to support

academic skills at the beginning of school and favourably influence the reading and mathematical skills

from the end of the second grade. Among children with poor skills related to work there were identified

children with significantly lower IQ levels, behavioural difficulties and medical hearing and speech

problems.

The results of the above studies lead us to consider that preparing children for school begins in the

family where its members understand that they are the most important people in the child’s life, assume

responsibility through direct, frequent and positive involvement to the best interest of the child. It also

requires supportive communities able to provide support/institutional and logistic assistance to families,

work together with them in their care and educational efforts on the short, medium and long term.

Throughout all this course, a major role lies with the care and early education services (nurseries,

kindergartens etc.) and schools that are prepared to accept any child regardless of his problems, and help

families in the transition to a formal learning environment. Every child that benefits from optimal

conditions ensured by this support network can gradually overcome vulnerabilities related to age, somatic

and psychological constitution.

Empirical Study

3.1. Objectives

Our research had a dual purpose: on the one hand, we wanted to highlight the perceptions of

teachers who teach at the newly introduced preparatory grade on the children’s school readiness at the

psychological levels: cognitive-linguistic, psycho-motor and socio-emotional. On the other hand, we

aimed to collect suggestions for adapting the curricular offer to individual and age characteristics of the

children in class “zero”, for a balanced adaptation to school life.

Based on this general purpose, we outlined the following objectives:

1.analysis of teachers’ perception on the main indicators of mental development of children;

2.description and analysis of the cognitive/intellectual, speech, emotional-motivational,

psychomotor, social networking problems, of understanding and complying with rules of specific activities characteristic of the preparatory grade identified by teachers from two different

residential backgrounds (urban / rural);

3.description and analysis of the causes of these categories of problems;

4.identifying teachers’ opinion on the degree of adequacy of the preparatory grade curriculum to the

children’s level of development;

5.proposals for the optimization of the curricular framework for the preparatory grade, depending on

the area of residence (urban / rural) of teachers.

3.2. Research Methods

The research was based on a questionnaire consisting of 34 items applied and completed either online

on the Google drive platform or on printed version, from November 2013 to March 2014. The

questionnaire consists of 34 items (23 closed items – of the scale type and 11 open items). The total

number of completed questionnaires was 84; of these, 43 were completed online, and 41 in printed form.

The number of rural subjects who responded to the questionnaire was 43. The number of urban subjects

who responded to the questionnaire was only 39. Two respondents did not declare their background.

Requests for participation in the study were sent to a number of almost 500 primary school teachers

who have taught at the preparatory grade in the school years 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, both in rural and

urban areas.

3.3.Findings

In terms of identifying the level of the main indicators of mental development of children it was

found that approximately 10% of the teachers surveyed believe that at the beginning of the preparatory

class all the children were ready to face the proposed school curriculum, whereas approximately 50% of

the teachers believe that most of the children were ready to deal with the challenges imposed by the

curriculum.

Table 1 -
See Full Size >

For the analysed dimensions, the most significant results show that:

�almost half of the teachers surveyed believe that most children are NOT prepared in terms of

compliance with the classroom rules;

�most children are ready in terms of their psychomotor and cognitive development (Sign Test <

.05) ;

�more children are more prepared at the relational and affective-motivational level than in terms

of compliance with the rules necessary to conduct classroom activities (proper conduct) (Sign

Test < .05);

The situation outlined above, although limited in terms of the number of respondents, is relevant in

terms of preparing the observed children for school life. Thus, it is important to stress that the adaptation

to a new way of activity is also determined by the subject’s ability to comply with norms, rules specific to

the environment that proposes them, in this case the school.

The second research objective was to identify the problems by development areas according to the

teachers’ background. Problems identified at children by the teachers from rural background, in order of

frequency of occurrence, was:

cognitive-intellectual: comprehension; motivational; speech;

speech: communication difficulties; pronunciation; sound identification;

affective-emotional: lack of emotional control (aggressiveness, impulsiveness) in relationships

with others; sensitivity, shyness; isolation tendencies;

psycho-motor: psycho-motor restlessness; problems of movement coordination; incorrect sitting posture;

socio-relational: poor relationships with the other children; fear of the unknown; egoism. Problems identified at children by the teachers from urban background, in order of frequency of occurrence, was:

cognitive-intellectual: speech, comprehension, attention;

speech: pronunciation (including language disorders), communication in simple sentences, poor

vocabulary;

affective-emotional: inability to manage one’s own emotions, high emotional sensitivity, emotional disorders;

psycho-motor: lack of self-service skills, lack of manual skills, movement coordination;

socio-relational: reduced socialization, violation of rules, preferential relationships.

We could see that most problems raised by both categories of respondents are related to speech

and lack of emotional control.

Trying to get a picture of the depth of these issues, the respondents were asked to indicate the

possible causes. Thus, for the cognitive/intellectual problems there were mentioned external causes such

as: family problems, deficiencies in the kindergarten/non-attendance of kindergarten, and internal ones:

attention deficit disorder, lack of motivation, intellectual deficit, immaturity. For speech issues there were

mentioned external causes such as insufficient exercise and/or family support, and internal causes such as

medical, emotional or age problems. Affective-emotional problems also have external determinations,

namely those deriving from the family and/or educational kindergarten environment, together with

immaturity and age particularities. It should be noted that the respondents in the two areas of residence

have provided relatively identical answers which denotes the existence of poor socio-educational

conditions that cannot ensure good training to children in order for them to be able to adapt to school life.

The fourth objective pursued by our study was to identify teachers’ opinion regarding the

appropriateness of the curriculum specific to the preparatory grade, in effect at that time, in relation to the children’s level of development. Most teachers surveyed considered that it answered, in the ratio of 90%,

to the development needs in terms of the following dimensions:

◦ cognitive/intellectual structures of the students’ personality,

◦ students’ language,

◦ psychomotor structures of the students’ personality.

On the other hand, there is less confidence of teachers in the curriculum adequacy in terms of the

developmental needs regarding the affective-emotional and socio-relationalaspects of the students’

personality. Regarding these two aspects, the teachers appreciate the curriculum appropriateness in the

ratio of only 70%. Considering the significant experience and expertise of teachers, we wanted to find,

through our research, the problems contained by the valid school documents. Thus, the curricula present

too many hours/week for contents that are too complex and inconsistent with the children’s development

level, plus the small number of hours for the discipline of Counselling and lack of textbooks. The school

syllabi are too complex, they contain too much content, impose too many requirements, the disciplines of

Mathematics and Environment exploration being inappropriately integrated. The auxiliary materials are

conceived erroneously, do not comply with the syllabus, their level of complexity and difficulty being

inappropriate for the students’ age peculiarities, there being a too large amount of content and, even so,

they are difficult to procure for financial reasons, especially by teachers in rural areas.

Our study was intended more like a reflection on the perceptions of teachers but also a way to

harness their educational experience. Thus, at the end of the questionnaire we offered them the

opportunity to make proposals to improve the curricular framework for the preparatory grade. Teachers in

rural areas have come up with the following suggestions: providing schools with teaching materials,

allocating additional human resources (psycho-pedagogue, doctor), simplifying content, whereas their

colleagues from urban schools revised and reviewed the syllabus, reducing the number of hours but

increasing the number of play and practical activities, and focusing the activity on the socio-emotional

development of children.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This study was a prospective one, conducted in the context of producing major changes in the

Romanian education system, more precisely one year after lowering the age for entry into the cycle of

compulsory schooling from 7 to 6 years and transforming the final preschool year into the first year of

school. At the macro-social level, this move was proposed in a socio-economic and institutional context

unfavourable for early education and for preparing children for school in Romania.

According to the observations made by teachers, children are best prepared in terms of

psychomotor and cognitive skills and least prepared in terms of the socio-relational and affective level,

with regard to respecting rules, the possible causes of this situation being external determinations, namely

those coming from the family and/or educational kindergarten environment, as well as immaturity and

age particularities.

At that moment, the majority of the teachers surveyed believed that the curriculum specific to the

preparatory grade responded, in a ratio of 90%, to the children’s development needs in terms of the

cognitive/intellectual, psychomotor dimensions and oral-written expression of the students’ personality, being inappropriate in relation to the socio-affective-emotional and relational aspects. The solutions

proposed by the educational actors interviewed were organizational-institutional, namely providing

schools with teaching materials, the allocation of additional human resources (psycho-pedagogue,

doctor), but also curricular, such as simplification of content, with colleagues from urban schools revising

and making additions to the syllabus, reducing the total number of hours, increasing the desired number

of ludic and practical activities, and focusing on the socio-emotional development of children.

As a proof that things continued to change even after 2012 is the fact that since 2013 there has

been introduced, in the curriculum for the preparatory, first and second grades, the discipline Personal

Development.

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Publisher

Future Academy

First Online

18.12.2019

Doi

10.15405/epsbs.2017.05.02.146

Online ISSN

2357-1330